• Undulating walls mimic the paths of the two tornadoes that tore through downtown Lubbock on May 11, 1970. - photo by Mark Umstot

A few things come to mind when one thinks of Lubbock: an expansive sky, a level landscape, a pervasive and sometimes dust-filled wind, and a chance tumbleweed. These inescapable features can create technicolor sunsets and sharply edged shadows. But occasionally, a nature more menacing fills the air. 

At dusk on May 18 of this year, tornado sirens blared, and the eerie sky filled the city with a sense of foreboding. Fortunately, the hook echo dissipated, and the funnel cloud retreated as the supercell floated innocuously eastward without doing damage. 

A little over a half a century ago, Lubbock was not so lucky.

On May 11, 1970, a devastating tornado tore through the downtown fabric of the city, leaving death and debris in its wake. It would prove to be one of the most destructive weather events in Texas history.

There were, in fact, two tornadoes on that fateful day. One touched down at 8:30 p.m., just east of downtown Lubbock at the corner of Quirt Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) and East Broadway. The second, more significant tornado touched down at 9:35 p.m. near the campus of Texas Tech University and ripped through much of the downtown, Overton, and Guadalupe neighborhoods on its two-mile-long tear toward the airport.

In addition to the 26 lives lost, the architectural devastation was immense. A one-mile swath was cut through the town, resulting in damage that affected one quarter of the city. In today’s dollar value, the financial impact would equal $1.7 billion of damage. Within a 25-square-mile area of destruction, 1,040 homes, along with over 250 businesses, were destroyed, while another 8,876 homes were damaged. The aforementioned neighborhoods bore the brunt of the effects of the storm.

Today, the visible remnants of the storm mostly include vacant land and parking lots in the downtown and Overton areas, but one lone building still attests to the storm’s immensity. The tallest structure in Lubbock, Metro Tower (formerly the Great Plains Life Building), continues to stand with a visible torque in its superstructure from the impact of the tornadic winds. The tornado permanently twisted the building’s steel moment frame by 12 inches, and the 274-ft-high tower also suffered cracked plaster in its stairwells, shattered glass in over half of its windows, and damage to three of its four elevators. 

Lubbock’s rebuilding efforts were significant and quick. Funding for the Civic Center and Mahon Library, as well as the establishment of 15 city parks and the first six lakes within the Canyon Lakes system, were approved and initiated within six months of the storm. In the decades since, the growth of the city and the patina of time have mostly hidden the scars of the tornado from subsequent generations, but the grand gesture of the new Lubbock Tornado Memorial brings the history of this event to the present as a teaching tool and reminder of the recent past. 

Earlier this summer, 51 years to the day after the 1970 tornado, the Lubbock Tornado Memorial was opened to the public. The project was designed to honor the 26 victims who perished during the event and the over 1,500 who suffered physical injuries. The memorial was a community effort, and it recognizes both the Lubbock citizens and city leaders who came together to rebuild in the tornado’s aftermath. 

The memorial sits within a larger four-acre site and includes a parking lot and contemplative grass areas with bench seating. The Memorial creates a metaphorical gateway to the past while establishing an actual gateway into downtown Lubbock at the northwestern corner of Avenue Q and Glenna Goodacre Boulevard, on axis with the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center. The opening was originally scheduled for the event’s 50-year anniversary but was delayed a year due to the pandemic. On May 11, 2021, in a nod to the spirit of restoration, a small dedication ceremony was held inside the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center, one of the structures that resulted from the city’s rebuilding efforts after the tornado.

The memorial itself was several years in the making. In 2017, the City of Lubbock gifted the land for the project and set aside some seed funding. Over the next three years, local businesses, organizations, and individuals donated time and money to bring the project to fruition. Because of this public-private partnership, schoolchildren, adults, and families can now learn about the severity of the storm and the impact it had on the development of the city. 

It also represents an opportunity for the community to heal.

Designed by Lubbock architect Stephen Faulk, AIA, along with Erick Davila and Rebecca Barnes, all of MWM Architects, the primary design elements are two 19-ft sculptural walls clad in polished black granite panels from India, which traced meteorologist Dr. Tetsuya Theodore (Ted) Fujita’s mapping of the twisting paths of the two tornadoes that tracked through Lubbock that evening. While these two walls dominate the memorial, a more subtle detail is the flat field of light gray concrete that encircles the black walls and the grid of brick inlays representing the Lubbock street grid in relation to the tornadoes’ winding paths.

Upon arrival from the parking lot, visitors are disoriented from the typical orthogonal street grid by a snaking sidewalk and sculpted landscape. At the entrance is an artwork by Aaron T. Stephan titled “Luminous Remembrance” comprising four lampposts: Three are bent and twisted, acting as sculptural references to the shattered infrastructure left in the storm’s wake. A fourth lamppost appears more upright and alludes to the community’s resilience and capacity to rebuild. A single, splintered utility pole is also placed at the entrance, a physical artifact of the veritable violence from that evening when time stood still. 

In addition to the sculptural walls, a combination of site walls, mature trees — including an old cottonwood that withstood the tornado — and a terraced fountain, clad in white granite from Brazil, help visually shield the neighboring buildings and parking lots to provide a genuine sense of calm between the massive, undulating walls.  

Inside the twin walls, the dark granite dominates the horizon and creates space for quiet focus and reflection. Although the memorial sits alongside the seven-laned Avenue Q, the fountain creates a constant crash of water, which reverberates between the hard-surfaced walls to reduce the noise of the traffic.

On the longer western wall that traces the path of the more destructive twister, stories are etched to recount the devastation of that fateful night. A brief paragraph and timeline set the tone for the memorial, while a series of personal quotes from Lubbock’s most affected residents, as well as news media reports from that day and during the aftermath, were used to give the truest sense of the impact. Each of the people who perished is named and keyed to an adjacent city map marking where he or she was at the time.

The second, eastern wall maps the path of the other tornado while recounting the resilience of the community, leadership initiatives, and funding efforts to rebuild the downtown in the hours and months after the destructive event. At a time when natural disasters are daily news, this memorial details the community resolve necessary to recover from such life-changing events.

Bookending each wall is a tall, silver aluminum column denoting the time of each tornado, to educate viewers and to emphasize the short timeframe during which these immensely powerful natural acts occurred.

Another subtle and poetic effect, which occurs in the faceted array of flat panels, is the reflection and continuous splitting, replicating, and reappearance of the context, figures, and sky. This animation of the surface appears to dissolve the solid material as visitors simultaneously see themselves and the moving sky above while becoming immersed in the memorial’s narratives: Even as the tornadic paths are rendered in solid material, the movement of visitors and the world around them constantly creates change across the polished surfaces. Phenomenal life meets living and breathing life as the sky is reflected, activating and enlivening the surfaces and the stories etched upon them.  

In conjunction with the recent opening of the Buddy Holly Hall of Performing Arts and Sciences just a few blocks away (see the May/June 2021 issue of Texas Architect), this project is proof of the resurgence of downtown Lubbock.  Locals and visitors now have an earthbound memorial to tell the story of the disaster, its impact, and how the city was rebuilt after the destruction. While we will always remember all that was lost that day, we continue to reach for a better future as the promise of rebirth and rebuilding drives us forward.

Peter Raab is an associate professor at the Texas Tech University College of Architecture.

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